By Jenna Somers
The caregiving environment can significantly shape brain development in infancy and toddlerhood, but how does that environment affect risk for mental disorders later in development? And could information gathered from this early developmental period help predict mental disorders?
These are two of the questions that Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development Kathryn Humphreys will investigate in her latest study on parent–child proximity and emerging psychopathology with a new five-year research grant in excess of $3.7 million from the National Institute of Mental Health Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists program.
Humphreys’ goals for the NIMH BRAINS study are to improve assessments of the early caregiving environment, identify when to intervene if brain characteristics suggest later psychopathology (i.e., when in development are caregiving interactions most influential), and develop effective preventative interventions that target the caregiving environment, such as distinguishing what aspects of the caregiving relationship (e.g., sensitive caregiving, physical closeness and language exposure) are most linked to later child functioning.
“This project is the culmination of disparate lines of research, allowing for an innovative approach to assessing how variations in early experiences may be shaping brain development and subsequent behavior,” Humphreys said.
Humphreys plans to recruit 150 pregnant people for the study and, following birth, assess their children’s caregiving experiences at ages 1, 6, 12 and 18 months. To gather data on these experiences, children will wear a newly developed unobtrusive device to measure their physical proximity to caregivers. Humphreys’ research team also will collect children’s exposure to language and obtain observations of caregiver sensitivity.
Additionally, in order to link variations in the caregiving environment to changes in the developing brain, Humphreys and her team will conduct repeated neuroimaging scans to assess brain structure and connectivity. When the children are 18 months old, the team will examine how changes in areas of the brain associated with emotional reasoning and regulation correlate with signs of emerging psychopathology (e.g., temper tantrums, excessive crying and nightmares) to test whether, when and how variations in early experience influence risk for later psychiatric disorder.
The focus of the study addresses the objectives of NIMH to advance discoveries in brain and behavioral development, with direct impacts on prevention and early intervention. Specifically, the BRAINS initiative aims to support potentially transformative research from exceptional early-career scientists who can advance the understanding, diagnosis, treatment or prevention of mental illness.
“I am grateful to receive this support from the NIMH, as this funding for early-stage investigators allows my lab to grow at a critical career stage,” Humphreys said.
The BRAINS award follows in a line of prestigious early-career awards for Humphreys. Most recently, she won the 2023 Boyd McCandless Award from the American Psychological Association’s Division 7 (Developmental Psychology). She also has received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science, among others.
Humphreys received her doctorate in clinical psychology and postdoctoral training in both infant and early childhood mental health and developmental neuroscience. She has published more than 150 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters on child development, adversity and caregiving, and directs the Vanderbilt Stress and Early Adversity Lab, which focuses on associations between children’s experiences and their development.